A New Yorker writer offers an affectionate profile that manages to reveal some of the paradoxes of serving free food in church.
During my hiatus from posting, New Yorker regular Ian Frazier wrote about his work teaching a writer's seminar at the Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen, the largest in New York. ("Hungry Minds," The New Yorker, May 26, 2008 and perhaps still available here.) It's technically a program of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles (EIN 13-2892297, no Form 990 because it's a church), but the congregation is small and the soup kitchen uses the nave of the church five days a week—the church removed the pews after a fire in 1990 to give the soup kitchen more space.
There's a lot of interest in the article about the practical realities of operating a social service charity. Pardon me for the long quotes here, but think this was as good a review of a nonprofit organization as I've seen in quite awhile.
I like the review of the history:
By 1980, the church is one of the oldest buildings on Ninth Avenue. Its membership has dwindled to about a hundred and twenty-five. Basically, it’s dying. Its roof, still the original slate, needs replacing. Leaks have damaged the ceiling, now in danger of falling in. Repairs to the roof would cost half a million dollars. The Right Reverend Paul Moore, Episcopal Bishop of New York, wants to close the church and consolidate its congregation with St. Peter’s. Ronald Reagan is elected President. Government money to help the poor is cut, fewer people have public housing, Chelsea’s single-room-occupancy hotels close. Homelessness becomes a visible New York City problem. Often, people knock on the church’s doors asking for help.
Father Rand Frew, the church’s new, young minister, suggests to the congregation that the church should start a soup kitchen. Father Frew thinks big and has a gift for starting programs. His previous church was in Las Vegas; perhaps a bit of gambling instinct is involved in this idea. The congregation wonders where it will come up with the huge amount of money a daily soup kitchen requires, but it gives the O.K. The consensus is that if Holy Apostles is going out of business anyway it might as well do some good before it does.
Father Frew finds fifty thousand dollars and donors of surplus food. He rounds up a head chef, cooking supplies, volunteers. On the soup kitchen’s first day, October 22, 1982, it serves about thirty-five meals. Starting then, it establishes its policy of being open every weekday. Its numbers of guests—from the beginning, the people it serves are referred to as guests—increase. Now the problem of repairing the church’s roof and ceiling has been simplified: donors who would never contribute to save a dilapidated church with a shrinking congregation are more willing to give to a historic church with a well-run and rapidly growing soup kitchen. More money comes in and the church borrows half a million for the roof repair.
By the mid-eighties, nine hundred or more guests are having lunch at the church’s Mission House every day. By 1990, the repairs to the roof are almost done. On April 9th, workmen up in the roof beams accidentally start a small fire with an acetylene torch. They put the fire out, they think. In the afternoon at quitting time, the workmen leave. A few hours later, the church is holding evening services in the narthex when someone sticks his head in the door and says, “Your church is on fire.” In minutes, the roof goes up in flames. The Fire Department comes and puts out the fire. Inside and out, the destruction is immense. Many of the irreplaceable stained-glass windows had to be broken to vent the gases from the fire. That night, the church is blackened, dripping, open to the sky. Nonetheless, the soup kitchen serves lunch in the undamaged Mission House the next day: a cold meal, owing to circumstances—macaroni-and-tuna salad, fruit, and juice. It feeds about nine hundred and fifty.
The church has fire insurance. Repairs of the damage, including installing another new slate roof, fixing the ceiling, and assembling the fragments of the stained-glass windows, will cost about eight million dollars. By now, Father Frew has left, and the rector of the church and executive director of the soup kitchen is William Greenlaw, a manager whose skill with money has acquired him the nickname Father Greenbacks. He consults with Elizabeth Maxwell and the vestry, and they decide to plan the reconstruction so that the soup kitchen can expand into the church itself. What to do about the pews? Take them out—the church stopped renting them a century ago, no money will be lost—and keep the space open for dining. During services, the congregation can just as easily use folding chairs. Everybody agrees about this immediately.
Reconstruction takes four years. When all is finished and the first meal is served in the main church, the guests come in quietly with their trays, unsure about the protocol for eating in a church. Wendy Shepherd, the church’s long-time administrative supervisor, watches them and worries that people won’t be comfortable eating here, but in a few days the strangeness goes away. The Times reports that mid-nineteenth-century pews saved from the fire at Holy Apostles are for sale for four hundred and fifty dollars apiece at a public architectural salvage yard in Brooklyn. Somewhere, the shade of Foster Thayer smiles.
There's also this about the volunteers:
Volunteers are asked to show up by 10 A.M. The soup kitchen needs at least forty volunteers to serve every meal. All kinds of people help out, but Manhattan retirees are usually the bulk of the volunteers. Some have been doing this almost since the soup kitchen began; Ilona Seltzer, a Chelsea resident, has been volunteering since 1985. School groups volunteer, and Sunday-school classes and Scout troops and the rabbis and members of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (which holds its own services in the church on Friday evenings). Kim, a software designer from Orange County, California, volunteers when she’s in the city visiting her aunt and uncle. Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, longtime Chelsea-ites, have volunteered. Senator Jeff Sessions (Republican of Alabama) and others of the Alabama delegation spent a morning working at the soup kitchen during the Republican National Convention in 2004. Senator Sessions used the photo opportunity that resulted to praise the soup kitchen as the sort of private initiative that naturally takes up the tasks our government should not do and should not have to do—an opinion with which everybody at the soup kitchen disagreed.
There's this about funding:
To keep going, the soup kitchen needs two million seven hundred thousand dollars a year. It spends more than ten thousand dollars every operating day. For this church, whose congregation still has fewer than two hundred members, that’s a lot. About thirty-five per cent of the money needed comes from individual donors who send checks in response to direct-mail solicitations. That income rises and falls, but is generally dependable. Most of the rest comes from foundations and from the city, state, and federal governments, which tend to be less predictable.
Which is just about as informative as the church's own financial report, although the web site claims that the full audited statement is available on request.
And some fascinating notes about fundraising—especially with respect to who does and doesn't contribute:
Government money for the hungry is a small and ever-shifting stream, moved by political change. City funding disappears under sudden budget pressure, federal poverty funds administered by FEMA are cut nineteen per cent, and a farm bill gets stuck in Congress, with the result that government surplus food suddenly becomes less available. Keeping up with the veerings of government support is a scramble. As for foundations, they are well intentioned and generous, but subject to moods. “Donor burnout” is one of those. Fashions in charitable giving also come and go. Recently, foundation charity has been more focussed on “making a difference,” an idea that works against the soup kitchen, which changes people from hungry to not, but invisibly. Also, foundation donors now like to talk about “measurable outcomes”—they expect recipients like the soup kitchen to single out the people who are helped, and measure the improvement in those people’s situations over time. Again, that’s not something the soup kitchen, with the off-the-street population it serves, can easily do. In the past eighteen months, several major foundation donors have dropped out, and no replacements have been found. There’s enough money for now, and for a while, but the future is unclear. The soup kitchen has been in this spot before.
Father Greenlaw, who has overseen the raising of all this money for twenty-five years, will retire at the end of July. ... In his quiet office on the third floor of the Mission House, he explains how much the soup kitchen depends on New York’s Jewish community (“If the Jews of New York City stopped giving, we’d go out of business”), and how he’s had no success raising money among red-state evangelical Christians, and how urban secular mailing lists like the list of subscribers to The New York Review of Books or of Channel Thirteen supporters or of members of the North Shore Animal League are much better places to find donors.
Now, I'm not a big fan of soup kitchens, myself, largely because of their lack of accountability and because they can appear to be a solution when in reality they are a symptom. Still, this organization seems to be something else entirely; a place where New Yorkers can meet and talk with a homeless person over lunch.